The generation that walked on the wild side in its youth faces health issues. The good news is that many of the ailments have more effective treatments than ever - if boomers will acknowledge the reality of aging.
Fred Hundt grew up in 1960s San Francisco, played in a loud band and tried a little bit of everything on the drug front. "I'm kind of a poster child of the '60s," he said.
Now he's a poster adult for baby boomers, whose embrace of a "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle is coming home to roost as they enter what are supposed to be their golden years.
"I certainly have hearing loss," admitted Hundt, a recovering alcoholic who lives in Marine on St. Croix. "And I have friends who have died because of drugs and others who have struggled with hepatitis C and had liver transplants."
Hearing problems and the threat of hepatitis C and attendant liver complications are perhaps the largest looming problems for Hundt and 76 million other baby boomers facing the indignities of aging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged that all boomers get tested for hepatitis C.
But there is some good news for a generation long regarded as hedonistic: Boomers smoke and drink less than their predecessors, and most sexually transmitted diseases they might have incurred in the "free love" era are treatable.
Actually, the biggest hazard for this fiercely youth-obsessed generation might be psychological, said Dr. Robert Kane, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Aging.
"What really scares the hell out of me is that they're totally unprepared for old age,'' he said. "This is the nasty little secret no one talks about."
In Kane's view, this boomer behavior is a flashback, if you will, to their youth. "I would describe them as people who live for the moment. They are in a huge state of denial and haven't adopted the mechanisms to cope."
The damage done
The rate of hearing problems for 65-year-olds has remained steady for decades at 11 percent, Kane said. But a recent Better Hearing Institute study found that about 15 percent of Americans ages 46 to 64 already have hearing problems. On top of that, Kane said, "A large number of people are just not aware that they have hearing loss."
And they needn't have played in what Hundt calls "the second-loudest band in the Bay Area -- not the second-best, the second-loudest"-- to have been afflicted in an era in which concerts featured huge stacks of loudspeakers blasting away at the audience.
But even those who eschewed such concerts are susceptible to hearing loss, often in the form of tinnitus or ringing sensations in a quiet room. "Exposure to loud noise at any time during life can damage the ear," said Dr. Philip Hagen, medical director of the Mayo Clinic's EmbodyHealth. "You can't fix that, but you can prevent further damage by protecting your ears. Hearing-aid technology has been advancing by leaps and bounds."
While Kane and Hagen encouraged all boomers to get hearing tests, the CDC issued an even stronger recommendation in August: "A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every baby boomer's medical checklist," director Thomas Frieden said.
The CDC estimates that 3.5 million Americans have the virus and that blanket boomer testing could uncover 800,000 victims and prevent 120,000 deaths. The disease, a viral infection of the liver, can stay dormant for decades. Hepatitis C-related illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer kill about 15,000 Americans annually.
"Most people with hepatitis C don't know they've got it," Hagen said. "The big issue for boomers was they may have been infected in an era when we weren't able to test for hepatitis C.
"If you have ever [used] intravenous drugs, you should get it checked at once. If you have engaged in high-risk sexual activity, multiple partners or men having sex with men, you should get checked."
Many boomers with that behavioral history will choose to do so surreptitiously. Helen Clark, who works with the local support group LiverHope, said victims who got the virus from using recreational drugs are uniformly "so ashamed of it that they don't want to talk about it.
"People view you differently when they think you got it from drugs," said Clark, who contracted hepatitis C from a 1970 blood transfusion. Workplaces "find ways to get rid of you. So many people have lost their jobs."
A long, strange trip
Other vices haven't proven as nettlesome, especially since boomers were less inclined to adopt them for life.
Take smoking, in whatever form. The data on marijuana's health effects are mixed, with some potential for respiratory problems, both doctors said. As for tobacco, "the boomers are sort of the model citizens, down around 20 percent [usage]," Hagen said. For those who smoked and then quit, "after about 10 years the risk of lung cancer and strokes is approaching the normal population's risk."
Alcohol and hard drugs took their collective tolls, but more on abusers than casual users. "The young, hard-core alcoholics and drug addicts generally don't make it to the ages of current boomers," Kane said.
Count Hundt, 60, among the lucky ones. He has survived "a lifelong love affair with alcohol," as have many of his boozy peers -- "you can find a lot of great musicians at AA meetings" -- but the heavier drug users, not so much.
"I've lost a lot of friends, people that died of drugs when we were young," said Hundt, who is executive director of Heart Inc., a nonprofit that helps alcoholics and addicts get treatment, "or they passed away in their 40s or 50s with heart problems."
Still, those who have made it this far might be in luck, especially since two of the major ailments (hearing loss and hepatitis C) have much more effective treatments than ever. On the sex front, most boomers had come of age by the time the AIDS crisis hit and many of them fell victim to it. Aside from herpes, whose symptoms occasionally re-emerge, most sexually transmitted diseases have cures. But then, there's that whole denial thing.
In a very real sense, a generation that adopted the Who's mantra "hope I die before I get old" simply doesn't think it has gotten old yet. As Kane put it, "there's going to be a wakeup call for a whole lot of people."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643